The myths of Sydney's urban consolidation

An interview with Dr Tony Recsei, president of the Save Our Suburbs community group, which opposes over-development forced onto communities by the NSW State Government.

http://blogs.smh.com.au/urbanjungle/2008/08/the_myths_of_sy.html

Dr Recsei has a background in chemistry and engineering, and is an environmental consultant. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has critically researched the claims made for urban consolidation in Sydney. This week I asked what he'd found out about the most important of those claims.

MD: Tony, do we actually have any choice but to adopt urban consolidation: isn't Sydney running out of land?

TRL: That's laughable. Just 0.2% of Australia's land surface is urbanized.

MD: But what about Sydney in particular? Wouldn't we save a lot of land if we increased density?

TR: If Sydney's residential density were to be doubled , its 45 km cross section would be only reduced by 5 km.

MD: That doesn't seem logical.

TR: The reason is the arterial roads, the CBD, other urban centres, the airports, the harbour and other non-residential elements comprise at least 60% of Sydney's area, and the area of these would remain the same if the density of residential areas were to be increased.

MD: Well, what about transport. Doesn't increasing density at least increase the use of public transport, and reduce road traffic?

TR: High-density advocates cannot point to any large high-density city in the world that does not suffer from severe traffic congestion. While in higher densities a greater proportion of people do use public transport, this is completely overwhelmed by the greater number of people in a given area - people who still have to use their cars for all sorts of reasons. Developers cannot sell units situated next to railway stations that do not have car spaces - this applies even to the CUB site next to Central Station.. Congestion increases with density, as do average travel times to work.

MD: Maybe we need more public transport?

TR: Public transport is only good for traveling to a central location
such as the CBD. But 87% of Sydney employment is now outside the CBD, and public transport cannot go from everywhere to everywhere. The proportion of journeys by public transport in much denser European cities (20%) is not materially different from that of Sydney (12%).

MD: What about the effect of urban consolidation on housing prices?

TR: To force people into high-density, the government has restricted the release of new land. The result has been a land shortage, which has hugely increased prices. The land component of the price of a house has increased from 30% to 70%. It costs $280,000 to buy a new house in Melbourne, in Sydney the cost is $400,000. Also, the cost of industrial land in Sydney is about twice that in other Australian cities. As a result of unaffordable housing, people are moving out of Sydney.

MD: So why does government push urban consolidation. Does it believe it saves infrastructure costs?

TR: You do hear that. But it's becoming apparent that high density retrofitted into existing suburbs overloads infrastructure and merely postpones expenditure. The infrastructure of our suburbs was designed for the density of dwellings then built. Large sums now have to be spent on augmenting electricity, water and sewage systems. This is turning out to be more expensive than laying out new infrastructure in Greenfield sites using mass production techniques.

MD: Still, household sizes are getting smaller, so don't we need smaller residences?

TR: Most Australians do not want the high-density, latte-sipping lifestyle. Surveys show 83% want a free-standing home in the suburbs. High-density policies actually reduce people's capacity to make the choices they want.

MD: You can justify just about anything these days if it's good for the environment. How does urban consolidation stack up there?

TR: Actually, it's detrimental. Data on the internet from
the Australian Conservation Foundation shows that carbon dioxide emissions per person are considerably greater in high density than in low density suburbs This is true even for families of equivalent income. High-density is more energy intensive due to greater operational energy resulting from lifts, clothes driers, more air conditioning use, common lighted areas and so on. There's also more energy embodied in the building in the steel and concrete construction. This "embodied" energy, spread out over the life of the building, amounts to about four times that of single residences.

MD: What about health?

TR: Congestion causes increased air pollution. The rates for psychosis are 70% greater and there is a 16% greater risk of developing depression.

MD: A final question, if urban consolidation is so bad, why are we pursuing it so relentlessly?

TR: There seem to be two drivers. The first is ideology. Those following the high-density creed imagine little communities snuggled close to the city. They talk of lovely sanctuaries with no cars and leafy boulevards with people strolling amidst cafes and craft shops and close to all amenities. As with any ideology, the ugly, unsafe, congested, polluted, energy-guzzling and expensive reality is ignored.

The second driver is political donations. Due to the government-created land shortage, developers can make huge profits out of units - typically over 100% on capital. They can then afford to contribute large donations to political parties, which provides preferential access. The result is further impetus for policies favouring more high-density and so the cycle continues.

* For more information about Save Our Suburbs, see www.sos.org.au